Friday October 5, 2012

Telly Halkias

Twenty-five years ago, while on vacation in Mallorca, I bought a chessboard, an inlaid mahogany slate with tournament-caliber playing pieces. The purchase was impulsive, and a nostalgic salute to my adolescent fervor for the royal game -- along with an attempt to motivate myself back to regular play.

While the latter never transpired, this past week I came back to chess. After reading another disappointing report about the upcoming presidential elections, I reached for another magazine to find a retrospective on the late American chess great, Bobby Fischer

The article brought back memories, and mercifully took me away from the Obama-Romney matchup.

Arguably history's greatest chess player -- easily one of the most eccentric -- Fischer died in exile in 2008 at the age of 64. After reading the piece, I sauntered over the mantle where the chessboard now sits and reminisced how Fischer changed my life, and in what context I found his demise today.

Fischer's rise from a fatherless childhood to the pinnacle of chess mastery was Hollywood fodder. Dropping out of high school at age 16 to haunt the Manhattan and Marshal Chess Clubs, he collided with destiny in the summer of 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland.

There, in one of the most dramatic World Chess Championship matches, Fischer dismantled Boris Spassky, the first and only American to topple the dynasty of Russian-born grandmasters.

Overnight, chess left the realm of nerds and became a cool pastime. Despite our other emerging interests, my friends and I were sucked into that vortex, and chess kept us off the sandlot, much to our parents' bewilderment.

The matches were epic, and neighborhood tourneys sprung with each passing day of the two-month Fischer-Spassky epic. We flipped coins for the honor of being Fischer. We used official clocks to time our moves and documented every game in classical and algebraic notation. When we ran out of permutations of the ongoing match in Iceland, we would compete by labeling ourselves after the historic grandmasters: Morphy, Botvinnik, Capablanca, Smyslov and Vidmar, to name a few.

Following Fischer's triumph, we continued for the next few summers. Some players moved away and we recruited replacements. Chess was everywhere -- print, radio and TV -- and Fischer had become a Cold War Caesar who dared to cross the Rubicon and conquer the Soviet bear.

But with Fischer's evolving quirkiness, our idol worship waned. We still enjoyed chess and would play the occasional lunchtime game at school on portable boards. Yet as our voices grew deeper and our whiskers darker, it was never quite the same.

Fischer's checkered life involved, among other things, a renunciation of the U.S., intense anti-Semitism, and paranoia of conspiracies that at best was clinical. He forfeited his title, spurned generous offers to return to competition, and invented a revolutionary form of the game he claimed superior to the original.

In 1992, Fischer resurfaced in Yugoslavia to defeat Spassky in a reprise of their original contest; that move violated the U.S. Balkan embargo. Fischer became an international fugitive until Iceland, the site of his tour de force, granted him asylum and citizenship. In the end, he died ailing and alone.

One of the article photos showed Fischer just before his death. I was shocked at his deterioration from the ruggedly handsome Brooklyn boy who once turned the world on its ear with his brilliance and élan. Yet like Hamlet watching a kingdom collapse around him, we all stood witness to the implosion of one of the 20th century's great intellects.

Even as I returned the last chess piece to the board, I couldn't help but feel that in these difficult times, somewhere, we're all still searching for Bobby Fischer.

People are yearning for the type of gift Fischer once had cornered: a visionary who can rise above and change everything for the better. Instead, we remain disappointed with our leaders by settling for broken promises, half-truths and the fog in which pretenders navigate - while losing ourselves in the process.

But in the summer of 1972, my friends and I were schoolboys who were thrilled to finally add a champion of the mind to our Pantheon. And Fischer, to echo the poet Wallace Stevens, was only a figure half-seen, or seen for a moment: a phantom so veiled in his own torment that a turn of his shoulder and quickly -- too quickly -- he was gone.

Telly Halkias is and award winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at: tchalkias@aol.com